There's a medium similar to watercolours which has little to no need for diluting or "prepping" the paints. It is coloured inks, also called drawing inks. While they're not precisely the same as liquid watercolour, I'll explain the differences and show you what you can do with them.

What are Coloured Inks?

Coloured inks are liquid colours used for writing, drawing, or painting, unlike watercolour in the sense that they're already diluted but similar in performance. 

They're also often made from dyes instead of pigment granules, which means most will have a staining effect. Plus, almost no inks will have the granulation factor found in some watercolour paints.

Although staining, they're not waterproof and are more difficult to layer than watercolours because they lift easily (unless labelled as permanent ink).

However, one thing that makes coloured inks stand out is how bright they are despite being liquid. They often come in dainty glass bottles for easy and convenient access!

What are they best used for that watercolour paints won't do just as well?

Made for Pens

One of the best uses for coloured inks is for a pen! More specifically, a fountain or a dip pen.

Because you don't have to dilute the colour to the exact same consistency each time, you can easily fill a fountain pen with coloured ink or use a dip pen to write or draw.

It is easy to create colourful calligraphy or linework with a varied yet precise line width, which is more challenging to do in watercolour.

Tip: Some inks will clog your pen! Make sure the ink is compatible with fountain pens before using it. Look for a sign that indicates it's suitable for fountain pens.

Bonus tip: If you're not sure how to use a fountain pen, we've got a great article on how to refill Etchr fountain pens! We've also got a blog post about how to use dip pens. 

If you prefer to learn through videos, I highly recommend that you check out our Introduction to Ink course. The instructor, award-winning illustrator, Mark Brewer is truly a master at his craft! 

The downside to using a fountain pen is that it won't be as easy to change colours halfway through without using all the ink inside the barrel first. The downside to dip pens is that you'll have to keep dipping the pen in your ink every time it runs out.

Even so, there's something quite special about having coloured linework, so it's something to try!

Bonus tip: Most inks aren't waterproof! Do your linework after you paint if you want it to stay crisp and clean. Try playing with this non-waterproof property by smudging your ink lines with clean water and a brush. You can get neat effects and use it as a shading tone.

For the best experience, I recommend using a hot press, Bristol, or mixed media paper, because they tend to be smoother, so the pen's nib won't catch the surface yet is thick enough to resist tearing.

Marker and calligraphy papers are fine too, but you can't do much painting with them.

Some papers may feather, which is when the ink bleeds a little into the surrounding paper fibres. For clean lines, test a few papers to see which gets you the line quality you want. 

Made for Monochrome

Another excellent use for coloured inks is that you can paint with them, just like you would with watercolours. They're pretty much ideal for monochromatic studies because they will consistently be the same colour, and you can dilute them further to get even lighter tones.

For example, I drew and painted the above using a lovely walnut ink made from walnut shells. I put a little of the ink in 3 different wells in a paint palette and diluted them differently to get three tones – a light, a mid, and a shadow to paint in the subject. I go more in depth with creating art with just one colour in this article on tonal values and contrast. 

Then, for the linework and darkest areas, I used my dip pen to outline and shade in some details, and voila! An easy monochromatic painting.

Smooth and Bright

Last but not least is that coloured inks can be brighter and smoother compared to watercolours because inks don't contain granules. Their chemical formulas are much more refined and can stay in a brighter liquid form, even after adding a little water to them.

Some inks even contain mica or pearl powder to make them shimmer! These are the only inks with particles, so make sure to shake or stir well before using them. 

Tip: You'll need a pipette or eyedropper to extract ink from the bottle and transfer it into a fountain pen or onto a palette. Using a dropper will prevent colour or dirt contamination within your ink bottle and make mixing and painting with your inks easier. Make sure to flush your pipette with clean water after each extraction.

Mixes are fun to create, though it's best to experiment with a palette and scrap paper. Try diluting the ink, using it straight out of the bottle, or adding alcohol or salt!

You can get some pretty cool textures too, which show up even more prominently than watercolours because inks go down so smoothly in the first place.

You have to keep in mind that because inks are often made of or mixed with certain chemicals, the pH of each will vary, which may cause strange chemical reactions.

Some mixes may even cause particles to form (called a "precipitate"). However, doing it on purpose can make fascinating blends on paper, especially if you drop a different ink colour onto a wet surface.

Warning: Never try mixing inks inside a fountain pen! Incompatible inks may clog and ruin your pen forever. If you're going to mix, pre-mix in a palette or mix directly on the paper's surface (with a cheap paintbrush, just in case).

Give it a Go!

Even if you don't have special tools like a fountain or dip pen, you can always paint with ink just as you would with watercolours. Inks do stain your brushes and are rather hard to clean out of a brush due to the smaller particles, so try a cheap synthetic brush first to see if you like how it flows.

Regardless, inks are super-convenient and fun to use and can be pretty economical if you buy only a few colours you like. Remember that not all inks are archival quality, so if that's something that concerns you, check the labels first.

In the end, inks are an extra tool to use to make more art. What's more important is the person using the tool! 

Have you ever spiced up your drawings with coloured inks? What's your favourite way to use inks – for drawing or painting? Let us know in the comments!

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Nicola Tsoi is a practising graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. She likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm during her downtime. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy.

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